Hollywood Animal: A Memoir by Joe Eszterhas

Alfred A. Knopf 2004  736 pp. 26.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


The philistine barbarian has long been a staple of Hollywood lore, producer Harvey Weinstein being the current Exhibit A.  While producers have been renowned for their outrageousness—think Sam Spiegel or Robert Evans—an occasional director emerges from the pack, justifying selfishness and greed as necessary elements in the service of cinema, or so he tells us (think Michael Cimino).  But a screenwriter?

Enter Joe Eszterhas.  “Author” (his word) of fifteen movies that together have made over a billion dollars at the box office—from the celebrated Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge, to the insufferable Jade and Showgirls—he has been celebrated for his populist talent and reviled for his supposed misogyny, greed, anger, and self-indulgence.   Not bad for a boy from Cleveland.

Joe Eszterhas was born in Hungary in 1944, child of a celebrated author father and a devoutly Christian mother.  His earliest memories are of his family’s stay in a Displaced Persons camp on the Austrian border, a time of traumatic deprivations, both physical and emotional.  At age five, he emigrated with his family to Cleveland, which had a large and thriving Hungarian community.  After working in a series of humiliating menial jobs, his father secured a position as editor of a Catholic Hungarian newspaper.

Joe, who claims he bore a striking childhood resemblance to Howdy Doody, was a social outcast and a budding juvenile delinquent.  Despite his father’s entreaties to study, Eszterhas squandered his educational opportunities, only awakening to books late in adolescence.

After a stint writing for Rolling Stone, Eszterhas caught the eye of the Hollywood community in 1974 after he wrote Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse, a National Book Award nominee.  He was, by his account, “a kid with a chip on his shoulder looking at Hollywood warily while at the same time ready to be seduced by it.”

Never having written a screenplay before, he penned F.I.S.T., which was ultimately snared by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Sly Stallone.

That collision between the screenwriter and the megastar was just the first of a lifelong string of ongoing conflicts with directors, producers and stars.  Unlike most screenwriters, Eszterhas wrote spec scripts, receiving payment only on their sale.  And he brooked no interference in what he thought was the role of a screenwriter: to write screenplays.

“Screenwriters historically have been treated like discarded hookers in Hollywood: not invited to the premieres of their own movies, cheated out of residual payments, blackballed for their political beliefs.

“Many have been treated like hookers because they hooked—working, as the lawyer turned-successful–screenwriter Ron Bass said, ‘to serve the director’s vision.’

“I wasn’t there to ‘serve the director’s vision.’  As far as I was concerned, the vision was mine and the director was there to serve it: to translate my vision to the screen.”

Combative, egomaniacal, and undeniably brilliant, Eszterhas wielded his typewriter as his “weapon.”  He was paid what were at the time staggering amounts for his screenplays, from 3 to 4.7 million dollars.

After 24 years of marriage to Gerri Javor, who produced two children, Eszterhas entered into a complex minuet of pairings that began with Sharon Stone “stealing” his married best friend from his wife.  This abandoned wife, Naomi, eventually became the second Mrs. Eszterhas.

Say what you will about Eszterhas’ negative qualities—and everyone, at some time or another has—the man is a heck of an entertainer.  The book is composed of a series of Hollywood stories, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, both combined with anonymous “tales of Hollywood players,” excerpts from Naomi’s diary entries, and letters—including his most famous one, to Michael Ovitz. 

Despite the predictable salacious stories of Hollywood, the most explosive and emotionally affecting part of this book involves Eszterhas’ father.  An intellectual, Joe’s father instilled in him the values of hard work and tolerance for others, especially Jews.  Following the release of Eszterhas’ Nazi-war-criminal film The Music Box, he learned of his father’s shocking past, a cruelly ironic revelation that required Eszterhas to reevaluate his entire upbringing. 

Throughout his life, Eszterhas began the day with a shot of booze, had a few more over lunch, several before dinner, and then three bottles of wine, all to accompany four packs of cigarettes a day, along with a joint or three.  This abuse caught up with him as he reached his 60th birthday, and he recognizes with regret how he brought his health problems on himself.

The book is hard to put down, but it’s not without its defects, principal of which is that it’s just too long.  Eszterhas spends far too much time and ink on his breakup with Gerri and eventual hookup with Naomi.  The details are lurid, and Eszterhas doesn’t spare himself criticism, but it gets tedious over time for this Hollywood animal to tell us for the fourteenth time how much he loves his children, hard on the heels of another account of another infidelity.

In addition, while Naomi’s diary entries are of clear interest to Eszterhas—see, look what my wife wrote!—they do little to illuminate the story, given Naomi’s lack of any critical distance from Joe.

Despite the book’s length and Eszterhas’ cheerfully aggressive boorishness, this book is compelling: by turns entertaining, heartbreaking, funny, and outrageous.  Hollywood Animal is more than a guilty pleasure; it’s a testimony to the power of market-friendly talent combined with an unrelenting will.